Our train pulled into a station somewhere between Fez and Marrakech. A man in his early twenties wearing jeans slid open the glass door to our compartment, ushered in his wife––who clutched a four-month-old baby swaddled in white cloth––and guided her to take the seat next to me. He hoisted a small bag into the overhead storage rack, then sat opposite, between my husband, who was reading a book, and a swarthy, chatty man in his sixties with a thick middle.
“ As-salaam Alaykum - peace be with you,” the couple smiled as we exchanged greetings in Moroccan Arabic, the young man nodding to each of us with a warm, toothy smile, his dark-brown eyes fixated for a moment on each of the three strangers, then flitting between us, his wife, and his baby.
Within minutes the older man had turned to mush and leaned toward the baby, smiling, cooing something we couldn’t understand, the young man and his shyer wife chattering back and forth with the older man, as if he were family.
“Welcome in Morocco,” the black-curly haired young man then smiled, acknowledging me and my husband, his beautiful wife smiling at us too, lowering her thick-lashed eyes bashfully as she jostled the baby who had begun to scream and fuss. Bounding out of his seat and squeezing next to his wife, the young man scooped up the baby, then stood and hovered the child above his head as he cajoled and twittered sweet-somethings to her. The baby soon giggled, the older man “aaaahed,” laughing, the young wife smiled too, and we all struck up the kind of conversation that occurs in train carriages around the world, despite language barriers––them: “Why are you in Morocco? How do you like it?”––us: “How old is your baby–do you have other children too?”
An hour or so after we’d learned about their parents, brothers and sisters, and that they were headed to Marrakech for a few days vacation, we felt as if we’d been guests at their wedding a year and a half earlier. The young woman, draped in a sapphire blue headscarf, suckled her baby under a white cloth, the man opposite slept with his glasses tipped on the end of his nose, and I gazed out the window at vast red-desert plains, a faint smile on my lips. I wondered why––in crowded carriages of the London Underground, the New York Subway, and to-and-fro from work on trains in Boston and Melbourne––we all stare down at our books, tap on our laptops, listen to music through our headphones. What would happen, I wondered, if we had the courage to speak to the person sitting next to us.